Until this month ‘taking a knee’ has not been a French phenomenon. When the Black Lives Matter movement spilled out of America twelve months ago and spread across the world, France was one of the few Western nations where it failed to make any headway.
In a bold television address at the time, Emmanuel Macron declared that there would be no statues toppled in France. Meanwhile, the leader of the far-left France Insoumise, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, rubbished the idea of ‘white privilege’.
The French looked on in bemusement as Britain seemed to lose the collective plot, hauling down statues, denigrating Churchill and then, when the rugby and football seasons started, dropping to their knees.
When Marseille played Manchester City in a Champions League Group game in October, the French team stayed upright as their opponents genuflected. It caused outrage among some of the British Twitterati, and Marseille felt obliged to defend their position.
‘The gesture is an American one,’ said a spokesman for the team. ‘In France, the fight against racism isn’t new. The French Football League organises many actions and Marseille is seen as the reference in this fight thanks to its history, fans and players. But we don’t adapt US habit as easily as in the UK,’ added the spokesman. ‘It does not mean that people don’t care or are reluctant, it is just another way to express our position.’
When the Six Nations championship started in February, the French XV, along with Italy and the Celts, threw their weight behind the ‘Rugby against Racism’ initiative, but they refrained from taking the knee. England did take the knee, although several players refused, including two of their non-white players, Billy Vunipola and Courtney Lawes.
But when France play Germany this evening in Munich in their European Championships group match, the visitors will take the knee. It’s curious why they’ve adopted this stance now. They didn’t take a knee in their most recent match, a friendly against Bulgaria, although they did when they played Wales a fortnight ago. Perhaps they felt pressurised to do so by Wales, who, like England, have enthusiastically espoused the gesture.
For several of the French team, taking a knee is a novel experience, but not for those who play in the English Premier League, including their captain, Hugo Lloris (Tottenham), and their star midfielder Paul Pogba (Man Utd).
Lloris announced at a press conference on Monday that France will take a knee tonight and it hasn’t gone down well among many of the political class. For some on the right, it’s provided an opportunity to incorporate their displeasure into their campaigning ahead of Sunday’s regional elections.
‘I regret the taking of the knee of the French team,’ tweeted Thierry Mariani, a former government minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, who is now a member of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally. ‘It’s an operation imported from a foreign country that has nothing to do with France. I believe in the neutrality of sport.’
Florian Philippot, Le Pen’s deputy during the 2017 election and now the leader of the Patriots party, described the decision as ‘shameful’. He said the objective of the Black Lives Matter Movement is to divide communities and stoke resentment.
Éric Ciotti, a centre right MP in the Republicains party, also denounced the gesture, saying it was a shame that the French team will kneel before an American political movement but won’t ‘for the victims of Islamist terrorism or policemen slain by thugs’. The mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, called on the players to make it clear that in taking the knee their actions will not be interpreted as a criticism of the ‘magnificent work’ of the French police.
If it is interpreted as an attack on the police, the timing of the gesture will be considered insensitive. Two days ago was the fifth anniversary of the brutal killing of a police couple in front of their infant child at their home in a suburb of Paris by an Islamist. Two days later, France played Albania in a Euro 2016 match, and the players from both teams observed a minute’s silence in their memory.
Five years on, and French police are still being murdered (two this year). But this evening, Les Bleus will instead honour the memory of a man killed by the American police more than a year ago.
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